No More Tomboys!

No More Tomboys!

I’m on a new crusade against the word Tomboy. If I get my way, I’ll cut it out of every dictionary. It’s all because of my own parenting challenge with my teenage children.

Breaking Gender Roles

My oldest child is artistic, creative and sensitive (and still cries when upset or angry). Child 1 has spent the last six months illustrating a comic strip with a friend, and last summer dragged me around half a dozen art galleries between New York and Washington DC. My firstborn is imaginative, loves role-playing, and in younger years loved holding fantasy conversations with a group of teddy bears. When Child 1 comes home from school and I ask ‘how was your day?’ I get concentrated information about what the teacher said, what they did during recess, or how their friends reacted to their clothes and hair. Child 1 is not athletic, cares a lot about their friends, and spends time discussing the best way to help a friend who was being bullied at school.

My second child is athletic, scientific, and very competitive. Child 2 is on the school’s basketball team, jogs round the neighborhood a few times each week with a friend, and wants to train for a long-distance swimming challenge this summer. Child 2 doesn’t care what color anything is as long as it’s not pink, excels at math, and is taking part in a national program for children gifted in math. Whenever my husband is fixing something around the house, Child 2 is there asking to help drill the holes or learning how to wire a plug. My second kid is neither imaginative nor creative, despite quite enjoying messing around with paint or clay. When my youngest comes home from school and I ask ‘how was your day?’ I receive a shrug and the standard ‘Fine’.

Can you see my challenge? I’ll tell you: Child 1 is a boy. Child 2 is a tomboy; or as I prefer to say, a girl. I have lucked out and got both a son AND a daughter who defy their traditional gender expectations.

The Gender Divide In School

I face the gender divide Every. Single. Day. I know things could be worse. I do regularly thank God that my children were born into the 21st century, when gender identities are a lot more fluid, but don’t think for a moment that in an era of trans-gender bathrooms, every gender issue has been solved. It’s not.

My children attend the brother and sister schools of the same educational foundation, but there are some significant differences between the two halves. My son and my daughter get roughly equal hours of sports time in school, but Daughter has probably had twenty times as many arts and crafts sessions than Son. Meanwhile, the boys’ school site has roughly five times as much outdoor space as the girls’ school, including a basketball court, a football field, two table-tennis tables, and a paved courtyard area, so Daughter sometimes struggles to find space to play basketball with her friends at recess.

Men Lead But Women Are Bossy

We have come a long way towards allowing girls to work in traditionally ‘male’ roles and to take up traditionally ‘male’ pursuits, but not far enough. And we have not done anywhere near as well at ‘permitting’ boys to take on traditionally ‘female’ interests and behaviors. It’s hard for my son to be emotional and sensitive, imaginative and artistic, in a society which still suspects such men of being gay (and pillories them for it). It’s easier for my daughter to be sporty, competitive, and into STEM, but she still faces that old accusation leveled at any woman with determination and authority: She’s too bossy. It’s today’s version of ‘men sweat, women glow’. Today men lead, women are bossy.

We need to champion boys’ rights to step out of the traditional masculine box as much as we enable girls to reach beyond their traditional gender roles. Today, if a girl takes on boyish behaviors, it’s a step up. If a boy takes on ‘girlish’ behaviors, it’s a step down. Professor Christopher Bell expressed it perfectly in this excellent TED talk. The poor boy mentioned, who committed suicide after being teased for liking My Little Ponies, is just one of many casualties of the way that we permit gender to be expressed. Similarly, you can easily buy ‘boyfriend’ shirts and boy-style underwear for girls, but I have yet to see one ‘girlfriend’ bag or girl-style socks for boys. Girls adopting boyish styles are cool; boys adopting girly styles are pathetic. It’s a message that is harmful to both boys and girls.

Tomboys and … Metrosexuals?

One of my biggest pet peeves is with the term tomboy. Every time someone calls Daughter a tomboy, I wince twice. Once because it tells girls that it’s cool to be boyish, but not to be girlish, and a second time because there is no parallel positive (or even neutral) phrase for boys who step out of their traditional gender profile. The nearest we have today is ‘metrosexual’, and imagine saying that about an eleven-year-old!

Here’s the real truth about tomboys: Being a tomboy is limiting. ‘Tomboy’ is not a compliment; it’s actually telling a girl that being good at math or enjoying sports is for boys, and she’s just borrowing that behavior from them. I loved that fabulous ad campaign by Always with the #LikeAGirl hashtag, because it reclaimed being a girl as something positive. I loved the first ad for Goldiblox for the same reason – the girls in their ad used ‘girly’ toys for their engineering projects. They didn’t need soccer balls or racing cars to be engineers; they did it with dolly strollers and pink feather boas.

Stepping Out Of Stepping Out The Box

Because Daughter is sporty and not very interested in fashion and makeup, many friends were surprised when she chose the full fancy gown and to have her hair ‘done’ for her batmitzvah. There was the assumption that a girl who’s good at math and sports wouldn’t want to dress up for special occasions, as though tomboys sacrifice all right to an expression of femininity.

Both boys and girls should be able to be whoever they want to be at the time. We, the adults who model grown-up roles for them, need to permit our children to be into art AND football, into math AND makeup. Let’s stop forcing children to take on extra gendered baggage along with emotional sensitivity or a competitive spirit. It’s beyond time to make space for footballers (male and female) who cry and scientists (male and female) who love jewelry, and to serve all the options up as a smorgasbord of personas for our children to taste, test, and try out.


A longer version of this article was published in The Parenting Pod. Visit The Parenting Pod for more no-holds-barred discussion about hot topics in parenting

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